The Early Days of Ogham Discovery
The study of Ogham, a unique and ancient script of Ireland, has captivated scholars for centuries. Indeed, it still does to this day, as I completed my own Masters research thesis on the topic of Ogham and Irish Identity in 2023. [Thesis Available Here]
Our short journey through the historiography of Ogham research begins with the first recorded Ogham stone at Emlagh East on the Dingle Peninsula. McManus (see below) suggests a dating of the stone to the first or early second half of the 5th century (400s CE).
This stone, noted in a manuscript by the Welsh antiquarian Edward Lhwyd around 1702-1707, marked the beginning of a scholarly intrigue that continues to this day.
18th and 19th Century Antiquarians
In 1785, Charles Vallancey's publication on the Mount Callan stone in County Clare sparked modern research into Ogham, despite the stone's later classification as not belonging to Ogham's early monumental phase. It is believed to have been carved around 1780, so as to provide evidence for MacPherson's Ossian, according to Siobhán de hÓir and other experts.
However, it did spark off the inspiration for much of the Ogham research that followed.
The 19th century (1800s) witnessed a surge in antiquarian interest, with numerous Ogham stones discovered. The work of Professor John Rhys was particularly notable for recognising bilingual stones in Wales, significantly advancing the interpretation of Ogham inscriptions.
Esteemed antiquarians like Richard Brash, Samuel Ferguson, John Windele, and Reverend Charles Graves made substantial contributions during this period.
Brash's 'The Ogam Inscribed Monuments of the Gaedhil in the British Isles; (1879) and Ferguson's 'Ogham Inscriptions in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland' (1887) remain seminal works in Ogham studies.
Advancements in Recording Techniques
The latter half of the 19th century also saw improvements in how Ogham stones were recorded. Photography and scaled drawings from full-size rubbings or tracings began to complement traditional methods.
Samuel Ferguson's innovative 'paper squeeze' technique, involving layers of wet paper for casting, was a significant development at the time, and many monumental inscriptions which may otherwise have been lost to weathering and erosion are available to us now because of the work in this period.
A New Era in Ogham Research
The 20th century (1900s) brought a changing landscape in Ireland, with a desire to move forward, post-Famine era. This heralded a new phase in cataloguing and interpreting Ogham inscriptions.
R.A.S. Macalister's 'Studies in Irish Epigraphy' and his 'Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum' are invaluable resources for contemporary researchers. Nash-Williams' focus on Welsh inscriptions in his 'Early Christian Monuments of Wales' (1950) added depth to our understanding of Ogham's spread beyond the Irish origins of Ogham.
This century also witnessed advances in contextualising Ogham inscriptions. Eoin MacNeill's role in studying the language and historical information contained within these inscriptions was pivotal.
MacNeill was not only a distinguished scholar but also a pivotal figure in Irish revolutionary history. His academic work, particularly in the study of early Irish history and language, has left an indelible mark on our understanding of Ireland's past.
Born in 1867, MacNeill's passion for Irish history and culture was evident from a young age. He co-founded the Gaelic League, an organisation dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Irish language, reflecting his deep commitment to Ireland's cultural heritage. His role in the Easter Rising of 1916 highlighted his dedication to Irish independence, further intertwining his academic pursuits with his political activism.
In the academic sphere, MacNeill's work on Ogham inscriptions and early Irish history has been invaluable. His ability to contextualise these ancient scripts within the broader narrative of Ireland's past has provided scholars with a richer, more nuanced understanding of this complex script.
His efforts in bridging historical research with national identity have made him a cornerstone in the study of Irish heritage and an inspiration for those who follow in his footsteps.
Building on this work, Kenneth Jackson's 1950 paper presented a relative chronology for the evolution of Irish language in British inscriptions from the 5th to 7th centuries, offering a new perspective on the script's development.
In 1991, Damian McManus's 'A Guide to Ogam' marked a significant milestone. This has become the textbook for any modern scholar of Ogham. McManus, a Professor of Early Irish at Trinity College Dublin, offered an approximate chronology for the Ogham inscriptions found in Ireland.
His work, focusing on linguistic developments evident in the surviving inscriptions, provided a crucial, though approximate, framework for understanding Ogham's historical context.
Fionnbarr Moore, Senior Archaeologist of the National Monuments Service, has provided excellent research over many years on the archaeological perspective of Ogham Stones.
Also notable to mention is Dr Nora White, Principal Investigator on the Ogham in 3D project, the mission of which is to digitise and record in 3D as many as possible of our approximately four hundred surviving Ogham stones.
Prof David Stifter and Dr Deborah Hayden are leading the OG(H)AM project, which seeks to harness digital tools from different fields to transform scholarly and popular understanding of Ogham. The blog can be found [Here].
Ogham Research: A Continuing Legacy
The study of Ogham is a testament to the dedication and curiosity of scholars across centuries. From the first recorded stone to the latest linguistic analyses, Ogham research continues to reveal insights into Ireland's past.
It's a journey of discovery, connecting us to the very roots of Irish heritage and language, a journey that continues to inspire and educate. As we delve deeper into the mysteries of Ogham, we not only uncover the past but also pave the way for future generations to connect with this integral part of our national identity and cultural legacy.
I plan to continue my own studies and academic publishing, hopefully to PhD level, and perhaps even do my part in inspiring younger scholars to pick it up as a focus and take the future of Ogham research... who knows where?
- de hÓir, S. (1983). The Mount Callan ogham stone and its context. North Munster Antiquarian Journal, 25, 43–57. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Ferguson, S. (1887). Ogham Inscriptions in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.
Jackson, K. (1950). Notes on the Ogham inscriptions of Southern Britain.
Macalister, R. A. S. (1945). Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum (Vol. 1).
Macalister, R. A. S. (1949). Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum (Vol. 2).
MacManus, D. (1991). A Guide to Ogam.
MacNeill, E. (1911). Phases of Irish History. Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son.
Nash-Williams, V. E. (1950). Early Christian Monuments of Wales.
O'Brien, L. (2023). From Stones to Poems: The Role of Ogham in Irish Identity in the Leinster Region During the 19th and 20th Centuries. South East Technological University (SETU).
- Stifter, D. (2022). Ogam: Language, Writing, Epigraphy. Zaragoza: Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza. (AELAW, 10).
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